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Many children suffer appalling violence as soldiers, but even those who remain 'civilians' can be subjected to horrific experiences. Anything that can be done to adults, however monstrous, can also be visited on children. Children have been tortured as part of collective punishments for whole communities, or as a means of extracting information about peers or parents. They have also been tortured as a way of punishing their parents, or in some cases simply for entertainment. Once immersed in this savage environment, differences of age soon seem irrelevant.
This also means that children are as likely as adults to be captured and imprisoned. The treatment of child prisoners is a matter of increasing concernparticularly in Rwanda where, for the first time in history, children have been imprisoned and are facing trial for genocide.
Photo: The fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina has not spared the children. In Sarajevo, almost one child in four has been wounded. ©
In these violent circumstances, women and girls in particular suffer the added trauma of sexual abuse and rape, which psychologists identify as the most intrusive of traumatic events. Without help, girls will carry the long-term effects of such abuse into their adult lives.
Sexual violence is particularly common in ethnic conflicts. In fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, it has been deliberate policy to rape teenage girls and force them to bear 'the enemy's' child. A European Community fact-finding team estimated that more than 20,000 Muslim women have been raped in Bosnia since fighting broke out in April 1992.19
In Rwanda, rape has been systematically used as a weapon of ethnic cleansing to destroy community ties. In some raids, virtually every adolescent girl who survived an attack by the militia was subsequently raped. Many of those who became pregnant were then ostracized by their families and community; some abandoned their babies, others committed suicide. In the Renamo camps in Mozambique, young boys, who themselves had been traumatized by violence, frequently inflicted sexual violence on young girlsthreatening to kill or starve them if they resisted.20
Even women and girls who are not physically forced to have sex may still be obliged to trade sexual favours for food, shelter or physical protection for themselves or their children.
The rise of sexually transmitted diseases, and particularly of HIV/ AIDS, is therefore inevitable. One factor contributing to the high rate of AIDS in Uganda could be that some women had to trade sex for security during the country's civil war. As a result, the next generation is at an even greater disadvantage, as more children are born with AIDS or are orphaned.